Are we ready for Fischer?

By International Master Atle Grønn, author of ‘Chess or Life’ and NRK-TV chess expert.

“If you want to see art, you have to go somewhere else,” said Magnus Carlsen after the 12th and final game of ‘’ordinary time” in his classical world title match against Sergey Karjakin in lower Manhattan in 2016. Perhaps Carlsen was thinking of the Museum of Modern Art or the Met in upper Manhattan; he had no idea that 14 months later he would be taking part in a chess performance at Norway’s Henie Onstad Kunstsenter (HOK). The 12th game ended in a tame draw, in the Berlin Defense of the Ruy Lopez.

Chess as art

Nevertheless, the thought of chess as art is far from new, it is perhaps as old as the game itself. “All chess players are artists, but not all artists are chess players,” said Marcel Duchamp, the French-American chess master who turned a urinal upside-down and called the work a fountain. As a spectator during the Norway Chess tournament in Stavanger, artist Dag Alveng discussed the art concept with Henrik Carlsen, the world champion’s father. The two did not come to agreement, but during the exhibition at HOK Høvikodden Alveng continues the discussion with Carlsen senior. “I make his son a work of art,” Alveng says, and places a living Magnus Carlsen in the center of the exhibition space.

Chess has been in museums before. The conceptual artist Duchamp had a chess performance, playing a game against a naked Eve Babitz in 1963 at the Pasadena Art Museum, in the city where Bobby Fischer would hide himself away after becoming world champion in classical chess in 1972. Formal chess was taken into the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow during the 2012 World Championship between Vishy Anand and Boris Gelfand. But on that occasion the playing venue was subordinate to the world title match. If they had not played at a museum, some other building would have been found in Moscow.

This time it is different. Without Alveng’s exhibition “Still time” there would not have been an unofficial world championship match between “reigning champion” Hikaru Nakamura (30) and Magnus Carlsen (27) in the chess variant Fischer Random. Chess will thereby become an integrated part of Alveng’s “performance” – a chess exhibition that itself contributes to making chess history.

Fischer Random is a variant of the game, stripped of opening theory and the scientific approach that has characterized chess since the “Soviet School”, and later computers, gradually changed the game in the last half of the 20th century. Fischer’s rules, which will be used in the duel between Nakamura and Carlsen, were inscribed and published in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the 19th of June 1996. This was Bobby Fischer’s great parting gift to the chess world and our game, which he feared would be completely dominated by opening theory and forced draws. At Høvikodden we will finally see what his Western successor, Magnus Carlsen, can accomplish in this form of chess art.

Fischer Random brings art back to chess and pulls the plug on science – for better and worse. In this way, this 2018 duel takes us back to the romantic chess of the 1800s, when chess theory was still unexplored, and the world champion title was highly unofficial.

Normal chess, but remember castling!

Fischer Random is chess. Quite normal chess in fact. There are many exotic variants but Fischer Random, also called Chess960, is by comparison one of the most recognizable and conservative. The classical start position, the one we all know, is one of 960 possible start positions.

The different start positions are created by placing the pieces on the first and eighth ranks by drawing of lot, carried out by a computer program before the game. The white and black start positions must mirror each other. In addition, it is mandatory that each player has one white-squared and one black-squared bishop, and that the king must be place on a square between the two rooks, in accordance with the pattern of classical chess. (The full rules of Fischer Random Chess)

With fully 960 different start positions, it is in practice impossible to memorize opening theory. The players must think from move one, and the game once again becomes a pure, creative battle of minds, the way it was a hundred years ago.

But the principles and chess understanding that have developed over the past hundred years are just as relevant in Fischer Random. Like the modernists Steinitz and Rubinstein, one can occupy the center with pawns; like the hypermoderns of the 1920s taught us, one can develop the bishops on the flanks. And as all children learn in their chess classes, it is vital to get your king to safety. In Fischer Random this is even more important, because an accident can happen quickly, and surprisingly early in the opening. Like when Russian Grandmaster (GM) Alexander Grischuk remembered to castle long against Carlsen in an extreme version of one-minute (bullet) Fischer Random, playing on website Chess.com in the autumn of 2017:

After just seven (!) moves Carlsen had to resign. The white king never managed to castle and is now in check from the rook on d8. The king has no place to hide.

Nakamura’s title

If you study the history of Fischer Random Chess, American Hikaru Nakamura keeps turning up as one of the great names, along with Armenian Levon Aronian, Russian Peter Svidler and Hungarian Peter Leko, all well-known stars from the world elite of classical chess in the 2000s. Nakamura is the “reigning champion” from the last unofficial championship, which was held in 2009. This is how he defeated Aronian in one of the title games:

Note the slightly odd feature of both queens being posted in the corner. The truth, of course, is that this is where the queens started their careers in this game, cornered. Apart from this anomaly, the position looks completely normal – a chess position with great creative potential, which Nakamura demonstrates with his next moves, where white exploits the original location of his queen on h1 to mobilize a deadly attack: 19.Ba6! e4 White threatened mate next move with 20.Qxc6! but when Aronian now closes the h1–a8 diagonal, Nakamura finds a new diagonal for his queen: 20.Qg1! Rxd2 Or 20…bxa6 21.Qb6! Rxd2 22.Qxc6† with mate to follow.

21.Bxb7†! Kxb7 22.Qb6† 1–0. Black’s king is doomed: 22…Ka8 23.Qxc6†! Kxa7 24.Nb5† Kb8 25.Qc7† Ka8 26.Qa7 mate.

Dress rehearsal

So Nakamura has demonstrated top level skill at Fischer Random. Carlsen has little experience, and lost the blitz game in the discipline when they met on January 3 this year.

This was the position after just three moves. Both players eventually castled long – like in classical chess this means a king to c1/c8 and rook to d1/d8, and the game normalized, as we see in the next diagram.

This is how most FR games develop. After a somewhat unusual opening phase, the public will not notice the difference from classical chess, but for the players there will be new challenges all along the way. Here Nakamura elegantly exploits a classical back-rank mate motif: 20.Rxe4! Rxe4 21.Rxd7 Rc8 Carlsen can not take the rook because of mate on the eighth rank (1–0, after 42 moves).

Two styles

I don’t believe the adherents of Fischer Random want to retire classical chess. To test out Fischer Random myself, I played 300 games online. In one of the games the computer actually chose the classical chess start position. This position, with the rooks in the corner and the king and queen in the middle, is the most harmonious of the 960 starting positions. It is fairly likely the most interesting. For beginners, the classical start position is recommended, but 500 years of opening analysis has also brought forth positions that are among the least interesting on a chess board:

Symmetrical position in a fashionable variation of the Ruy Lopez.

Nakamura has said that if this trend continues, where the excitement is over after just a few moves, then Fischer Random must come to the rescue for top players. More of the top players are therefore hoping that Fischer Random can become a viable alternative branch, the way one competes in two disciplines in, for example, cross-country skiing (classic and freestyle), even if the average amateur can happily stick to classical chess – or classical cross-country – which are challenging enough at most levels.

A new chess adventure

I can not disguise my enthusiasm for Fischer Random and the duel at HOK Høvikodden. For me, the fascination with Fischer Random began in 2015 when I was working on an article for the weekly newspaper Dag og Tid. The background for the article was that the Russians wanted Magnus Carlsen lending support after he had said that he liked the middlegame best and that he preferred openings that got players out of theory. I asked what the world champion thought about Fischer Random without getting an answer. I was inspired by GM Andrey Devyatkin, who chose to put his chess career on ice and bank on Carlsen giving Fischer Random a boost.

In 2017 the strong Ukrainian GM Alexander Areshchenko said much the same when he retired as a chess player and hinted that Fischer Random could get him to come back.

Carlsen has stated several times that the classical version of chess is rich enough as it is. Others, like his Russian GM pal Yan Nepomniachtchi, has said that he thinks Fischer Random would suit Carlsen very nicely since the world champion is not known to sparkle in the world of heavily scientific opening theory. This is why many are very eager to see Carlsen take up Fischer Random, but at the same time we must be prepared to see the world champion’s unique intuition fail him in certain situations. Intuition is, in a nutshell, pattern recognition – and in the opening the players here are all on completely unknown territory.

The artist with black is playing the Sveshnikov variation in the Sicilian honouring Kasparov. From the Chess House in Moscow October 2017, where Alveng captured chess photographies with Vibeke Ekeland Grønn as the photo assistant and Atle Grønn (on Karpov's spot) as interpreter. Photo: Vibeke Ekeland Grønn
The artist with black is playing the Sveshnikov variation in the Sicilian honouring Kasparov. From the Chess House in Moscow October 2017, where Alveng captured chess motives with Vibeke Ekeland Grønn as the photo assistant and Atle Grønn (on Karpov’s spot) as interpreter. Photo: Vibeke Ekeland Grønn

So when fine-art photographer Dag Alveng called me one Saturday morning a year ago, and asked if had any ideas for a chess event as an integrated part of his exhibition, my first thought was to place Magnus Carlsen behind the pieces in some kind of Fischer Random world championship.

Ever optimistic, Alveng thanked me for the chat and took the idea forward with enthusiasm, while I calmly wished him good luck. Later Alveng met one of the great optimists in Norwegian chess, Jøran Aulin-Jansson, former president of the Norwegian Chess Federation. Aulin-Jansson took on the event and in true boxing style became the promoter for the unofficial title match.

With Alveng’s chess photography in the background, Nakamura and Carlsen will deliver chess artistry over five days and 16 games, to an Internet audience spanning the entire chess world and hundreds of thousands of Norwegian TV-viewers. The audience will definitely experience something completely new on the 64 squares, and  – perhaps – this is the start of a new chess adventure.